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Ravens must find a rangy free safety to get the most out of 2013 top pick Matt Elam

By Matt Vensel

11:30 AM EST, January 6, 2014

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It seems likely that once the Ravens figure out who is staying and who is going on their coaching staff, their focus will shift to improving an offense that ranked 29th in total yards and 25th in scoring. Coach John Harbaugh said last week that fixing the offensive line will be big priority, and the Ravens will need to upgrade at wide receiver and add a tight end regardless of what happens with free agent Dennis Pitta.

But there are also a few positions that could be addressed on defense, none more pressing than free safety.

James Ihedigbo was one of the season’s biggest surprises for the Ravens, winning a starting safety job during training camp and playing pretty solidly while manning the strong safety spot throughout the course of the season. He was second on the defense with 101 tackles and he also picked off three passes.

Ihedigbo finished as one of the top 20 highest-graded players at his position, according to Pro Football Focus, but of those safeties, Ihedigbo was the only one with a negative grade in pass coverage. Ihedigbo’s biggest strengths, besides being the leader of the secondary, were defending the run and blitzing.

The problem -- besides the fact that Ihedigbo is slated to become a free agent in a couple of months and has earned a raise -- is that rookie Matt Elam, the team’s first-round draft pick last April, is also at his best near line of scrimmage.

“Matt is pretty darn good when he is running to the ball and making tackles,” Harbaugh said. “That’s definitely a strength for him, and he showed that toward the end of the year.”

Elam took over for free-agent bust Michael Huff at free safety in Week 2 and started every game the rest of the way. He experienced some growing pains, like getting beat by Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green in the season finale, but to be fair, Elam was playing a much different role than the one he played in college.

At Florida, he was a jack of all trades, defending the run, blitzing the quarterback from the slot, running with tight ends and backs, and dropping into zone coverage.

In his first year in Baltimore, he was usually the one who was lined up as the deep safety while Ihedigbo was the one who was closer to the line in single-high looks.

Elam made 77 tackles, five for a loss, but few big plays. He had one interception and knocked down just three passes. The rookie also recovered a pair of fumbles.

“Matt Elam was disappointed in how he played," Harbaugh said. "He feels like he should be making a lot more plays. OK, I'm on board with that. The thing I pointed out to him is when you're a safety, you better be solid first. … And he was solid first as a safety. He was in the right spot most of the time doing the right thing.”

Harbaugh said that “safeties are more interchangeable these days,” meaning that in today’s pass-happy NFL you need two safeties that can cover. He also said having versatile safeties allows you to be unpredictable with your blitz package.

Elam doesn’t have the ideal range to be that single-high safety on the majority of the snaps, but he could be a plus player in coverage if paired with the right free safety. His nose for the football and aggressive tackling could be better utilized near the line, perhaps similarly to how the Pittsburgh Steelers use play-making strong safety Troy Polamalu.

That’s why the Ravens should try to find a rangy free safety in either free agency or the draft -- the draft is more likely endeavor -- so they can move their 2013 top pick to strong safety, where he could potentially thrive.